What is the Case Against a Conspiracy in the JFK Assassination?
The JFK assassination has always been a controversial subject. Some people argue that President Kennedy was killed by a lone nut named Lee Harvey Oswald; others argue that whether or not Oswald was involved, the assassination was the result of a conspiracy.
Advocates on each side of the debate rarely confront the essential points made by their opponents. This article is an attempt to put forward the case against a conspiracy, balanced by the arguments of those who oppose this interpretation.
A complementary article puts forward the case in favour of a conspiracy, together with the relevant opposing arguments. Anyone who has not yet made up their mind about the JFK assassination should read both articles. Anyone who has already made up their mind should certainly read both articles.
Lee Harvey Oswald Was the Lone Assassin
Arguments that the assassination was carried out by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone:
- Oswald owned the rifle that was used during the shooting.
- Oswald took the rifle into the Texas School Book Depository on the morning of the assassination.
- Oswald’s fingerprints were on the rifle.
- Oswald’s fingerprints were on the cardboard boxes close to where the bullet shells were found.
- Oswald was seen in the sixth–floor window during the assassination.
- The three–shot scenario is plausible.
- Oswald’s escape from TSBD is a sign of his guilt.
- Oswald shot the policeman, J.D. Tippit.
- Oswald shot at General Edwin Walker.
- A conspiracy would have required too many participants.
- Conspiracy theorists have repeatedly been shown to be wrong.
- Conspiracy theorists are irrational.
Oswald Owned the Sixth–Floor Rifle
A Mannlicher–Carcano rifle had been discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository about 30 minutes after the assassination. That rifle had been purchased via mail order by ‘A. Hidell’ in March 1963 (Warren Report, pp.118ff). ‘A. Hidell’ was an alias that Oswald had used in New Orleans a few months before the assassination. Oswald’s wife, Marina, testified that Oswald had owned the rifle (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.1, p.119).
The rifle was used to fire all the known bullets in the assassination. Scientific tests showed that all of the bullet fragments that were recovered from the victims were from bullets that had been fired from the rifle.
Although the documentation associated with the purchase of the rifle is incomplete, most commentators accept that Oswald ordered the rifle. His ownership of the weapon early in 1963, however, has no bearing on whether or not he fired the weapon on the day of the assassination.
The scientific analysis of the bullet fragments does not in fact prove that they were all associated with the rifle. It is quite possible that some of the fragments were from other, unrelated bullets (see How Reliable is the NAA Evidence?).
Oswald Took the Rifle into the TSBD
Lee Harvey Oswald worked at the Texas School Book Depository, and had access to the sixth floor, where the rifle and bullet shells were discovered. He admitted that he had carried a paper bag during his journey to work on the morning of the assassination.
A home–made paper bag, constructed from the TSBD’s stock of wrapping paper and large enough to contain the rifle, was discovered close to the sixth–floor window from which the shots had been fired.
Three people saw Oswald that morning. The two witnesses who saw him before and during his journey to work stated that he had carried a paper bag, but that the bag was much too short to have contained even a disassembled rifle. The third witness, who saw Oswald as he entered the building, claimed that Oswald had not been carrying a bag.
The bag supposedly discovered on the sixth floor may well have been placed into evidence fraudulently: it is not visible in the police’s contemporary crime scene photographs, and most of the police officers who inspected the area did not recall seeing the bag. Although the bag had been made on the premises, Oswald never had the opportunity to manufacture it.
Oswald’s Prints Were on the Rifle
The Dallas police discovered Oswald’s palmprint on the barrel of the rifle.
The print proves that Oswald had handled the rifle, but does not prove that he handled the rifle at the time of the assassination.
It is quite conceivable that the print was not authentic. The Dallas police failed to note the palm print when they sent the rifle to the FBI laboratory on the night of the assassination. The investigators at the FBI laboratory did not detect any identifiable prints on the rifle. Only when the Dallas police retrieved the rifle from the FBI laboratory did they announce the discovery of the print.
Oswald’s Prints Were on the Boxes
Partial fingerprints and palmprints from Lee Harvey Oswald were found on two of the boxes in the south–eastern corner of the sixth floor, close to the empty bullet shells. This suggests that Oswald had constructed a shield of boxes around his sniper’s nest, and that he had leant on the boxes when shooting at Kennedy.
According to the FBI’s fingerprint specialist, one set of prints had probably been deposited during the three days immediately before the assassination; the other set was probably older. There is a perfectly innocent explanation for the prints: Oswald’s job required him to handle cartons of books on the sixth floor. The presence of prints on only two of the 19 boxes suggests, but does not prove, that the pile of boxes close to the south–eastern corner window was no more suspicious than the many other piles of boxes elsewhere on the sixth floor.
Oswald Was Seen in the Sixth–Floor Window
A witness standing directly opposite the south–eastern sixth–floor window saw a gunman in that window, and described the gunman in a way that matched the appearance of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The witness, Howard Brennan, gave a very general description of a young white man. Later that day, Brennan saw Oswald’s photograph on television, and then came face to face with him in the police station, but was unable to identify Oswald as the gunman. Other eye–witnesses were even less helpful:
- Several witnesses described the gunman in a way that did not match Oswald’s appearance.
- Two witnesses saw the gunman on the sixth floor standing next to another man.
- Other witnesses saw Oswald elsewhere in the building at the same time as a gunman was seen on the sixth floor.
The Three–Shot Scenario is Plausible
If Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, he must have fired three shots in around six seconds, using the rifle that was discovered on the sixth floor of the TSBD. The Warren Commission found that this was possible. Later investigations also found that this type of rifle could be fired with sufficient accuracy in the time available.
The Warren Commission’s conclusion in this area, as in many others, was contrary to the evidence. The US Army and the FBI both tested the rifle on behalf of the Warren Commission, and found it to be unreliable and inaccurate. The rifle was in such a poor condition that it needed to be repaired before it could be tested. In its original condition, it could not have been fired accurately.
Even after the rifle had been repaired, expert marksmen were unable to aim and fire the rifle in the way Oswald was supposed to have done. Oswald’s marksmanship was far inferior to that of the experts who were unable to replicate his alleged feat. The later tests that succeeded in firing three shots in six seconds, two of which were on target, were not carried out with the sixth–floor rifle, but with other, better–quality rifles of the same type.
Oswald Escaped from the Scene of the Crime
Oswald left the TSBD just three minutes after the assassination. He went to his rented room, and retrieved the pistol that he was carrying when he was arrested at about 1:50pm. According to a roll–call taken shortly after the assassination, Oswald was the only TSBD employee to leave the premises. He clearly left the scene of the crime because he was guilty.
There is no definitive evidence for Oswald’s movements between the assassination and his arrival at his rented room around 30 minutes later. The claim that he left the TSBD three minutes after the assassination was merely an assumption by the Warren Commission, which needed to get Oswald away from the TSBD as soon as possible.
Oswald himself was reported to have claimed to have spent “five or ten minutes” chatting with his supervisor, who gave him the impression that there would be no more work that day (Warren Report, p.619), although the supervisor, William Shelley, denied that the encounter took place (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.390). None of Oswald’s interrogation sessions was recorded, and all the accounts of his alibi are second–hand.
There was no roll–call of TSBD employees (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.382). Oswald was one of many employees who did not report for work after the assassination. The others included:
- Charles Givens, who corroborated Oswald’s claim that the warehouse workers were allowed to go home (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.355), and who was himself the subject of a search by the police (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.23, p.873 [Commission Exhibit 1974, pp.83f]);
- Carolyn Arnold (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.22, p.635 [CE 1381])
- Mrs Donald Baker, née Virginia Rackley (ibid., p.635);
- Virginia Barnum (ibid., p.636);
- Gloria Holt (ibid., p.652);
- Stella Jacob (ibid., p.655);
- Judy Johnson (ibid., p.656);
- Sharon Nelson (ibid., p.665);
- Bonnie Richey (ibid., p.671);
- Vida Whatley (ibid., p.680);
- and Jack Cason, the president of the TSBD company (ibid., p.640).
Oswald Shot Officer J.D. Tippit
Oswald was originally arrested for the murder of a police officer, J.D. Tippit, who was shot in a suburb of Dallas about 40 minutes after President Kennedy had been shot:
- The empty bullet shells found at the scene of the crime were identified as having been fired from the pistol which Oswald was carrying when he was arrested (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.512).
- Several eye–witnesses identified Oswald as the killer.
- The murder took place less than a mile from the rented room from which Oswald had retrieved his pistol after the shooting in Dealey Plaza.
Oswald shot Tippit to avoid arrest for the murder of JFK.
There was more evidence linking Oswald with the Tippit killing than the Kennedy killing: Oswald did at least have a gun in his possession when the second victim was murdered. Nevertheless, the evidence is far from conclusive:
- The identification of the bullet shells with Oswald’s pistol was made by a representative of the Illinois State Police because the FBI’s expert refused to do so (ibid., p.475). The FBI laboratory stated that Oswald’s pistol was defective: “the firing pin would not strike … the cartridges with sufficient force to fire them” (Jevons to Conrad, 12 February 1964, FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–916). If true, this by itself would eliminate Oswald as a suspect.
- Several witnesses claimed that the gunman did not resemble Oswald.
- The identification parades (‘line–ups’ in US English) involving Oswald were conducted improperly: Oswald stood out from the other men (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, pp.260f); one witness had already seen Oswald’s photograph in a newspaper (William Scoggins: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.334f); and statements were taken from witnesses before they had made an identification (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.264; this also happened to William Whaley, the taxi driver who apparently drove Oswald to his rented room after the assassination: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.430).
- Helen Markham, the main witness against Oswald, was extremely unreliable (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, pp.305–321).
- The timing of the incident shows that Oswald could not have reached the scene of the murder without assistance.
It is possible to suggest reasons why Oswald’s supposed murder of Tippit implicates him in the murder of JFK: he was avoiding arrest, he was a trigger–happy lunatic, and so on. Equally, it is possible to think of plausible reasons why an Oswald who was innocent of the JFK murder might have killed Tippit: he was aware that he was being set up, he feared that Tippit was about to kill him, and so on. It is also entirely possible that the murder of Officer Tippit had no connection at all to the murder of President Kennedy.
Even if Oswald had killed Tippit, it does not prove that he killed Kennedy. And even if Oswald had not killed Tippit, it does not prove that he did not kill Kennedy. Like many aspects of the assassination story, the question of who killed Tippit is not central to the question of who killed JFK.
Oswald Shot at General Walker
According to the testimony of his wife, Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to assassinate General Edwin Walker in April 1963, thereby proving his capacity to inflict violence on public figures. On the evening of the attack, Oswald left a note which explained what to do if he were arrested. Scientific evidence shows that the bullet fired at Walker was the same type as those fired at JFK.
Marina Oswald’s incriminating testimony was obtained under duress, when she was detained by the Secret Service and threatened with deportation by the FBI. An internal Warren Commission memo admitted that Marina Oswald’s evidence in the Walker case was unreliable (HSCA Report, appendix vol.11, p.126). All of the other evidence in the Walker case indicates that Oswald did not do it:
- There were two gunmen, both of whom could drive, unlike Oswald.
- There is no reason to suppose that the note apparently left by Oswald had anything to do with the shooting attempt on General Walker: it was not dated, and did not refer to Walker.
- The same scientific evidence that turned out not to link all the JFK bullet fragments to the sixth–floor rifle also turned out not to link any of the JFK bullet fragments to the Walker bullet. General Walker himself was adamant that the bullet entered into evidence by the Warren Commission was not the one he had handled at the time of the shooting.
As with the shooting of Officer Tippit, the attempted shooting of General Walker has no bearing on the shooting in Dealey Plaza.
Oswald Is the Only Plausible Candidate
The central facts of the case indicate that Oswald was involved: he owned the rifle, and worked in the TSBD, from where the rifle had fired the bullets that struck Kennedy and Connally. No other plausible candidates for the role of gunman have yet been put forward.
It is certainly true that Oswald is implicated in some way by the presence of his rifle at the scene of the crime. Either he was guilty, or he was framed. The main reason why no other plausible candidates have emerged is because the crime was never seriously investigated. Once Oswald was arrested, about 80 minutes after the assassination, the authorities assumed that Oswald was guilty, and ceased looking for anyone else.
Too Many Participants
Any conspiracy must have involved a large number of people: those who planned the event, those who carried it out, and those who covered it up afterwards. Any one of the conspirators could have disclosed the details of the plot over the following decades. Although many people have claimed to have participated in a conspiracy, none of them are credible. The area behind the fence on the grassy knoll is not big enough to contain all the people who have claimed to be the second gunman.
There is no reason to suppose that any conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy must have involved a large number of people, nor that any of the participants must have known all the details of the plot. The impersonation of Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City need have involved no more than a handful of people. The same is surely true of the shooting in Dealey Plaza. Neither group need have had any knowledge of the other. Nor is there any reason to suppose that anyone connected to the Warren Commission was involved in the conspiracy. The release of previously secret Warren Commission and White House documents make it clear that the Commission was merely a practical, ad hoc solution to an urgent political problem.
Poor Arguments and Weak Facts
Conspiracy theorists are too quick to jump to conclusions. Many of the things they claim to be facts have been disproven, and other claims are poorly supported. For example, the three tramps who were photographed in Dealey Plaza shortly after the assassination were assumed to have been part of the plot, but were later shown to have had nothing to do with the assassination. Another erroneous claim is that a photograph shows Lee Harvey Oswald on the front steps of the TSBD during the shooting, when he was supposed to have been on the sixth floor. The man on the steps was actually a colleague of his, Billy Lovelady. Both claims have long been disproven, but both are still made by conspiracy theorists who haven’t bothered to check the evidence.
Not only are conspiracy theorists often wrong, but they contradict each other. For example:
- Some say that JFK was shot only from behind, others that he was shot only from in front, and others that he was shot from several different directions.
- Some say that this group of people were behind the assassination; others nominate a different group of conspirators.
- Some say that the Zapruder film has been faked; others say that it is genuine.
They cannot all be correct. When so much of what conspiracy theorists say is clearly false, why should we believe anything else they say?
It is true that many pieces of evidence that were supposed to have indicated a conspiracy have been shown to be false. Many other claims are not yet disproven, but are so bizarre that they should be assumed to be disproven, such as the claim that President Kennedy’s body was altered before the autopsy to cover up evidence of conspiracy. Many rational people who are critical of the case against Oswald are equally critical of the more speculative and paranoid theorists.
Of course, no more than one conspiracy theory can be true, and all the others must be false. But it does not follow that just because some JFK assassination conspiracy theories are false, they must all be false. The same point applies to the lone–nut hypothesis. The Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations contradicted each other on several fundamental points, such as the location of the wounds to President Kennedy’s head. They cannot both be correct, but just because one of them must have been wrong, it does not mean that both were wrong. The central arguments against the lone–nut theory are sound, and are not affected by other, false arguments.
Conspiracy Theorists are Irrational
Genuine conspiracies are very rare. The Warren Commission made a strong case that President Kennedy was not killed as the result of a conspiracy. In any complex case, it is almost certain that there will be trivial discrepancies in the evidence. Seizing on such discrepancies, while overlooking the stronger aspects of the evidence, is irrational.
If the case against Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin of President Kennedy were a strong one, and there were simply a handful of minor inconsistencies in the evidence, it would indeed be irrational to conclude that there had been a conspiracy. But the only strong evidence against Oswald is that he appears to have owned the rifle that was used to fire some of the shots. Almost all of the other aspects of the case demonstrate that he could not have played an active role in the shooting, let alone that he was the only gunman.